Some Kind of Heaven ★★1/2
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Some Kind of Hell
The title of this documentary suggests we’re in for a deep dive into the essence of “The Villages,” a retirement community of 130,000 in the interior of Florida. “Everything is here,” “This is Nirvana,” “Everybody can be what they want to be,” and “I don’t see slums, I don’t see death and destruction, I don’t see murder” (as if willful blindness was a desirable quality). These are the residents’ testimonials, spouted mostly in the first few minutes, while the camera shows the happy campers in various elaborately programmed activities, including synchronized golf carts. It’s as if life itself is purified and synched, more like the fictional dystopias of “The Truman Show” and “Pleasantville” (both 1998) than a documentary.
Director Lance Oppenheim, named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film 2019,” soon shifts the focus from the community to a character study, featuring two difficult men (Dennis and Reggie) and two trying-to-be-reasonable women (Barbara and Anne).
Dennis lives in a van and cruises The Villages in search of a woman of means whose looks won’t embarrass him.
Dennis, low on money and friends and on the run from a DUI in California, lives in a van and cruises The Villages (which he describes as “God’s waiting room to heaven”) in search of a woman of means whose looks won’t embarrass him. He haunts the bars and churches until he discovers that hanging out around swimming pools works best, only to ultimately abandon the idea of a relationship, a rolling stone opting for “freedom” over “comfort.”
Barbara, hardly a newcomer, ends up as alone as Dennis—swaying by herself on the concrete dance floor of an outdoor party in the final scene, and not by choice. Ineligible for a group of women all named Elaine, she joins a gathering of singles who unenthusiastically play tambourines, then meets the golf-cart-selling “Margarita Man” for a stab at a relationship destined to fail. She’s a sad sack, who appears to have no one with whom to talk or give her advice except her manicurist. There are no children in the picture—no kids and no adult children, who might offer support to Barbara or anyone else.
No less sad is the relationship of Reggie and Anne, married 47 years. Anne’s role is that of a saint, struggling to manage, contain and tolerate her now drug-using, monomaniacal husband, who claims to have been reincarnated. Anne describes marriage as “supposed to be 50:50, but,” she says, “more like 80:20”—80% her responsibility, 20% (surely overestimated) Reggie’s.
Oppenheim misses the opportunity to explore how the individual and couple stories relate to life in The Villages.
The pathos that saturates the film can be oddly entertaining and now and then compelling, but Oppenheim misses the opportunity to explore how the individual and couple stories relate to life in The Villages, a place whose plethora of “choices” may be partly responsible for closing off more meaningful opportunities and possibilities. In addition to golf carts, rowing, veil dancing and swimming—all synchronized--there’s line dancing, pickleball, miniature golf, and the “Elaine” club. As Oppenheim presents it, there are no lectures, seminars, plays, classes, concerts, or reading groups.
It’s as if life itself is purified and synched.
The community’s reach brings to mind the concept of the “total institution,” sociologist Erving Goffman’s term for convents, mental asylums, and prisons.
The community’s reach brings to mind the concept of the “total institution,” sociologist Erving Goffman’s term for convents, mental asylums, prisons, boot camps, and other “places of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life” (Asylums, 1961).
With its gatehouse and gatekeeper, The Villages has the appearance of being gated, although the streets are legally open to the public. The residents are technically free but somehow still closed in—they can leave, of course, and non-residents (like Dennis) can, apparently, freely enter. Anne appears to be trapped—in the marriage as well as in the community—a “bubble,” she calls it. Barbara, who’s employed there, can’t move out because she has spent her savings paying for the association’s amenities. When she dreams of “home,” it’s not of The Villages, where she’s lived 12 years, but of some place in Massachusetts.
Director: Lance Oppenheim
Starring: Dennis Dean, Anne Kincer, Reggie Kincer, Barbara (no last name given), as themselves
Other Awards: 1 win, 9 nominations to date
Runtime: 81 minutes